Chaplin and Clinton. Chinatown and castration. Nudists and Nixon. These people and things have one thing in common: They all played parts in San Diego’s history over the past 150 years.

I told their stories — and many more — in our pages over the last 12 months. Here’s a look back at a few of the most memorable tales along with a quick skim through other History Man flashbacks from 2010.

JFK’s Scotch, Clinton’s Giraffes and a Feisty Faceoff: When Presidents Dropped by San Diego

You may have heard this urban legend: President Kennedy came to San Diego and supposedly said the stretch of Highway 163 through Balboa Park was the prettiest highway he’d ever seen. While I couldn’t confirm that JFK actually said that, I did ask for stories about visits from presidents (14 have been here while in office).

Readers responded with some great memories about Clinton’s surprise visit to the Wild Animal Park and Truman’s motorcade through Mission Hills. I also heard about the intriguing deliveries to JFK’s Air Force One, how a junior high student gleefully captured Kennedy’s glance and why candidate George Wallace nearly gave a hippie more than a piece of his mind at the Sports Arena.

When San Diego Told Lincoln to Lump It: Why Our County Rejected Honest Abe

The hoopla over the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election made me wonder how San Diego County voted. It turns out that as San Diego goes, so doesn’t go the country, at least in the 1860s. We had lots of Southern sympathizers here, and they turned down Lincoln not once, but twice. We were, as one visitor put it, a “secession-tinged area.” In other words: people liked slavery just fine. And some may not have minded it coming here.

A Place of Their Own: San Diego’s Chinatown

A search for an interesting person to interview led me to the chronicler of San Diego’s Chinatown, a section of downtown that once housed the Chinese people who weren’t welcome in other parts of the city.

I learned about the roughness of life in Chinatown (closely connected to downtown’s red-light district), the jobs its residents were forced to take (gardener, launderer), and the political power that its leaders still managed to wield.

Charlie Chaplin’s S.D. Murder Mystery: Death Beyond the Shore

Back in 1924, Charlie Chaplin and a bunch of his buddies set out on a booze cruise to San Diego. Others included famed publisher William Randolph Hearst, his mistress Marion Davies and a woman who’d become one of Tinseltown’s two most powerful gossip columnists.

Also on board was also a well-known director who would be dead within days. Did he die of natural causes? Or did someone shoot him on the yacht off the San Diego coast? It’s one of the most enduring mysteries of Hollywood and a celebrity-studded tale of access and excess.

When S.D. Sex Offenders Faced a Choice — Prison or Castration

Earlier this year, the capture of the man who killed two North County teenage girls spawned a debate over the best ways to deal with sex offenders. One woman wrote to The San Diego Union-Tribune and remembered the days when a local judge ordered sex offenders to face either prison or castration.

Whoa. What? It’s true, as I discovered: From the 1930s until the 1960s, judges did indeed give that choice to sex offenders. Hundreds of men agreed to be castrated and went on probation instead of going to prison. “There was no maliciousness in their motivations…,” a local professor says of the judges. “They felt they were giving benefit to these men by keeping them out of prison and restoring them to society.”


A few more flashbacks:

• When Mormons Claimed San Diego: How San Diego almost became part of a state called Deseret.

• Not So Mythical: Was the Wild Animal Park’s monorail ride really named after a naughty saying? Why yes, it was. Are there really bodies buried under a San Diego park? Yup.

• A Choice on Mayor’s Strength Almost 80 Years Ago: “We haven’t a single public official to whom we can point with pride,” City Hall critics proclaimed. Was this yesterday? Naw. It was back in 1931. Voters took power away from the mayor, but the position got it back for good this year.

• Behind Nixon’s Big San Diego Scandal: A big scandal brought down our hopes of a national political convention before an even bigger one brought down a president. A new book tells the amazing history of what happened before Watergate.

• The Steel Behind Ellen Browning Scripps: She was one tough old lady — but not as stern as the photos suggest — and her legacy was crucial to San Diego’s future. A history professor tells me why.

• When San Diego Said No to Nudes: Back in the 1970s, voters decided that bathers at Black’s Beach needed to stop baring more than their unfortunate taste in swim trunks. So how come visitors kept dropping trou (among other things) and the beach is still a nudist hot spot today?

Look for more history flashbacks in 2011. If something in the news harkens back to the past, I’ll have it covered. Unlike, say, those folks at Black’s Beach.

Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at and follow him on Twitter:

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at

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